10 Best VPN Services 2021

We compared dozens of VPNs to find out which ones are best for online safety, Zoom, Netflix, and more. In the end, ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost topped the list.
Recent Updates: 3 weeks ago
We've updated the details on our top ten VPNs and refreshed our list. Find out why we chose ExpressVPN, NordVPN, CyberGhost, Private Internet Access, and Hotspot Shield as our top five.

A VPN (virtual private network) encrypts your internet connection on the fly so that your information is kept private whether you’re on your laptop, phone, or iPad.

This said, not every VPN is made equal. Some work better with Netflix or Zoom, while others offer perks like ad blockers that help you stay safe while browsing. Features like a high number of servers and countries can also make one VPN better than another, depending on what you want to do with it.

We researched and tested more than 40 VPN companies and settled on ExpressVPN, NordVPN, CyberGhost, Private Internet Access, and Hotspot Shield as our top picks.

But are they right for you? Let’s dig in and find out.

Best VPN services comparison
Monthly priceServers and countriesMax number of devicesDetails
ExpressVPN$12.95/mo.3,000+
94
5View Plans
NordVPN$11.95/mo.5,200+
60
6View Plans
CyberGhost$12.99/mo.7,400+
90
7View Plans
Private Internet Access$11.95/mo.33,000+
78
10View Plans
Hotspot Shield$12.99/mo.3,200+
80+
5View Plans
Surfshark$12.95/mo.3,200+
65
UnlimitedView Plans
IPVanish$10.99/mo.1,900+
52
UnlimitedView Plans
PureVPN$10.95/mo.6,500+
140+
10View Plans
TunnelBear$9.99/mo.1,800
41
5View Plans
ProtonVPN$10.00/mo.1,200+
55
10View Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Money icon
What’s the best free VPN?
Not ready to put down cold, hard cash on a VPN? We recommend giving a free trial a go instead of grabbing a free VPN. Some free VPNs have been known to leak your data. Not cool. And we’ve also got several recommendations for low-cost VPN services you can try.

A VPN will slow down your internet. Enter your zip code to find the fastest internet plans in your area.

How to choose a VPN

There are so many VPN providers to choose from, deciding on one might be difficult. Mostly it comes down to what you’re using a VPN for. And it’s important to look for a few key features when shopping for a VPN.

Look for these features when choosing a VPN service to get the best level of online protection as well as the best streaming and gaming quality while your VPN is turned on.

10 features to look for in a VPN service

  1. Price: Most VPN subscriptions don’t cost much, and you could save money by signing up for an annual plan. Just make sure the up-front cost won’t send your budget spiraling.
  2. Free trials and money-back guarantees: If you’re not sure a VPN is right for you, look for a free trial or a money-back guarantee.
  3. Number of servers and countries: More servers equals more options for VPN connections.
  4. Devices: Make sure your specific devices are supported. Don’t forget about browser extensions and ad-blocking software.
  5. Max number of devices/simultaneous connections: Most VPNs let you connect 5 devices at a time, but some VPNs offer unlimited connections.
  6. 24/7 live support: Things break, problems arise. 24/7 live support is your lifeline.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, there are a few additional features you should consider.

7. A no-logs policy

When you look for a VPN provider, choose one that keeps “no logs.” That means the VPN provider doesn’t keep any records of who you are or your online activity.

If your VPN provider does keep logs, then there’s a record of you somewhere in the world. That means information about your online shopping habits, your friends’ or family’s contact information, or your personal data could be stolen.

Light Bulb icon
What are Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes?
Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes are terms commonly seen when reading about VPNs. Each one represents an alliance between different countries and an agreement between those countries to share surveillance data of online activity.

If your VPN is located in a country that’s part of these alliances, its no logs policy could be a false promise because it might be required to share your data with allied countries.

Five Eyes: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and the US
Nine Eyes: Five Eyes countries plus Denmark, France, Holland, and Norway
Fourteen Eyes: Nine Eyes countries plus Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden

8. AES-256 encryption

AES-256 encryption is the gold-standard way to keep hackers’ hands off your data. (It’s approved by the National Security Agency.) Most VPNs use AES-256 encryption, but some allow you to choose a less-secure encryption method. So always double-check that AES-256 is the standard—or at least that you can swap to it.

Bullhorn icon
AES-256 encryption, by the numbers
We hope you’re sitting down: 2^256 equals … (deep breath):
115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,564, … (deep breath) … 039,457,584,007,913,129,639,936

Uhh, yeah. That’s a huge number of combinations. And to crack into your data, a hacker needs to have the exact 256-bit key that was used to encrypt your info. AES-256 is almost impenetrable against brute-force hacking attacks, and a hacker would need a quantum computer to even attempt it. (A quantum computer is a step up from a supercomputer.)

9. OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, or WireGuard protocol

OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, and the newer WireGuard VPN protocols are some of the most secureVPN protocols. We recommend avoiding PPTP and IKEv2, since these two protocols are less secure.

Also, while SSTP is very secure, it works with Windows computers only.

VPN protocol security levels
ProtocolSecurity level
WireGuardMost secure
OpenVPNMost secure
SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)Extremely secure (Windows only)
IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, version 2)More secure
L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec)Secure
PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol)Least secure

10. Advanced VPN features

Split tunneling: If you’d like to choose which apps and websites are covered by your VPN and which ones aren’t, choose a VPN with split tunneling options. For example, you may be content streaming Netflix in your home country without a VPN, but you’d like extra security while you check your online bank account.

DNS leak protection: A VPN that prevents DNS (domain name system) leaks ensures that any DNS queries your device makes are securely routed through your VPN. If your DNS queries are leaked, that means third parties, including your ISP, could see which websites you visit, apps you use, and more.

Dynamic IP address: Your IP address is assigned to the device you’re using to get online, so it makes sense that a dynamic, or changing, IP address is more secure than a static one. Static IPs are easier to hack and can even allow third parties to find out where you and your device are physically located.

Want to read more?

ExpressVPN: Best for most people

ExpressVPN’s easy-to-use interface and powerful features make it one of the best VPNs out there

ExpressVPN features
VPN serviceLowest priceServers and countriesWorks with NetflixLearn more
A logo with a red italicized E on the left and ExpressVPN on the right$8.32/mo. for 1 yr. (billed $99.95 annually)3,000+
94
YesView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Express VPN’s biggest standout is its interface, which is clean and user-friendly. Simply  open up ExpressVPN, and tap the power button to instantly connect.

To select a different server, tap the three dots next to the name of the server you’re currently connected to.

A screenshot of the ExpressVPN dashboard showing a connection to a USA - New York server

Source: Reviews.org

Pros

  • High number of countries and servers
  • Handy video guides
  • Zero traffic logs

Cons

  • Only five simultaneous connections
  • Comparatively pricey
ExpressVPN features
FeatureExpressVPN
Price$12.95/mo.
$59.95/6 mos.
$99.95/yr.
Servers3,000+
Countries94
Simultaneous connections5
Logs policyNo logs
Netflix supportYes
Torrenting supportYes
Ad blockerNone
EncryptionAES-256
VPN protocolOpenVPN
Customer support24/7 live chat and email
Free trial30-day free trial
Learn moreView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

ExpressVPN standout features

  • Considerable number of countries and servers
  • Apps for streaming devices and gaming consoles
  • Clean, easy-to-use interface

ExpressVPN is a top pick because of its interface and powerful features, plus a large number of servers and countries to choose from. ExpressVPN’s customer service and user guides also contributed to its reputation as one of the top VPNs available.

It also offers split tunneling in case you’d rather not use your VPN for a game of Clash of Clans on your phone, but absolutely need it when you check your banking app.

As for ExpressVPN’s privacy policy, it doesn’t collect your browser history, website content, or DNS queries. It also doesn’t collect your IP address, connection timestamp, or session duration.

But it does collect the minimum amount of data to keep its VPN service up and running: your account info, app diagnostics, and user-registered IP addresses for those that use MediaStreamer.

The biggest drawback to ExpressVPN is its price. It’s not as affordable as some of its competitors: NordVPN and Private Internet Access cost $11.95 a month. On top of that, ExpressVPN restricts you to five devices, unlike IPVanish and Surfshark.

View Plans | Read Full ExpressVPN Review

Tired of slow internet? We’ll help you find a faster plan to use with ExpressVPN.

NordVPN: Best security

NordVPN’s colocated RAM servers offer maximum security for your data

NordVPN features
VPN serviceLowest priceServers and countriesWorks with NetflixLearn more
NordVPN$3.67/mo. for 2 yrs (billed $99.00 annually)5,200+
60
YesView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

We rated NordVPN highly because of the user-friendly interface (most features are very easy to find), its exceptional security measures including RAM servers, a reliable and consistent connection to a wide assortment of servers, and a reasonable price for the value and quality.

A screenshot of the NordVPN dashboard showing a connection to a server in Germany

Source: Reviews.org

Pros

  • Intuitive interface
  • Zero traffic logs
  • Excellent encryption and security

Cons

  • Targeted by streaming services
  • Costly one-month plan
NordVPN features
FeatureNordVPN
Price$11.95/mo.
$59.00/yr.
$99.00/2 yrs.
Servers5,200+
Countries60
Simultaneous connections6
Logs policyNo logs
Netflix supportYes
Torrenting supportYes
Ad blockerYes
EncryptionAES-256
VPN protocolOpenVPN
Customer support24/7 live chat
Free trial30-day free trial
Learn moreView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

NordVPN standout features

  • Operates RAM servers
  • CyberSec feature blocks malware websites
  • Zero traffic logs

NordVPN is a top-notch VPN because of its straightforward interface, no logs policy, and exceptional security features.

You won’t have any trouble finding features while using its friendly looking app. Added features like CyberSec, which blocks malware, ensure your data stays safe. Plus, like many VPNs, NordVPN has a zero logs policy.

But unlike some VPNs, NordVPN began upgrading to diskless RAM servers in 2019, which means its servers can’t store any data. Zip, zilch, nada.

And now, NordVPN is rolling out colocated servers that are fully owned and maintained solely by NordVPN, so no third parties get close to its servers.1

As for speed, we found slowdowns to be few and far between and all but unnoticeable during our testing.

View Plans | Read Full NordVPN Review

CyberGhost: Best value

CyberGhost offers a massive number of servers and a low-cost two-year plan

CyberGhost features
VPN serviceLowest priceServers and countriesWorks with NetflixLearn more
A logo with a black ghost on a yellow circle background with CyberGhost to the right$2.25/mo. for 2 yrs. (billed $58.50 for first 2 yrs.)7,400+
90
YesView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

CyberGhost is technically superior when it comes to specs alone. This VPN can connect seven of your devices to over 6,000 servers in 90 countries. There’s a server available for almost any purpose. It’s also one of the fastest VPNs we’ve tested, making it great for gamers.

On top of exceptional specs, CyberGhost offers a low monthly price if you pony up for its two-year plan. And its 45-day money-back guarantee is also generous—most VPNs offer only 30 days.

A screenshot of CyberGhost VPN's connection features and a connection to a USA - New York server

Source: Reviews.org

Pros

  • Connect up to seven devices
  • Large number of servers
  • Great speeds
  • Low-cost two-year plan

Cons

  • Pricey monthly plan
  • Sometimes overloaded servers
  • 24- to 48-hour free trial
CyberGhost VPN features
FeatureCyberGhost
Price$12.99/mo.
$38.34/6 mos.
$58.50/2 yrs.
Servers7,400+
Countries90
Simultaneous connections7
Logs policySome data collection (IP address, country, etc.)
Netflix supportYes
Torrenting supportYes
Ad blockerYes
EncryptionAES-256
VPN protocolOpenVPN, WireGuard on some devices
Customer support24/7 live chat
Free trial24- or 48-hour free trial
Learn moreView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

CyberGhost VPN standout features

  • Access on up to seven devices
  • Massive number of servers
  • Has a low-cost 2-year payment option

To get the most value out of CyberGhost, sign up for its two-year plan. That brings your monthly cost down to a nearly unbeatable price of $2.25 a month.

But if you choose to pay month by month, CyberGhost can be costly. It charges you $13 a month if you don’t pick its six-month or two-year plan, which is high compared to month-to-month prices you’ll see from other VPNs.

That whopping 7,400+ server count is another excellent feature. Plus, CyberGhost lets you connect up to seven gadgets, a (small) step up from NordVPN’s and ExpressVPN’s limit of five each.

If you’d rather not commit to a full six months or two years of CyberGhost service, you can sign up for its free trial. But be aware that your free trial lasts only 24 or 48 hours, depending on whether you sign up for the trial on desktop or your cell phone. You can also connect only one device while on the trial.

As for logs, CyberGhost says it doesn’t store traffic logs, but it does collect various bits of personal data that includes your IP address, country location, billing methods, and a few other items.

View Plans | Read Full CyberGhost VPN Review

Private Internet Access: Best web browsing features

With more servers than any VPN we’ve seen plus ad and malware blocking, Private Internet Access takes privacy to the next level

Private Internet Access VPN features
VPN serviceLowest priceServers and countriesWorks with NetflixLearn more
A green lock with a smiley face and Private Internet Access to the right$2.08/mo. for 3 yrs. (billed $79.00 every 3 yrs.)33,000+
78
US Netflix onlyView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Private Internet Access (PIA) tops the charts with 33,000+ servers across 78 countries, which is stunningly high. Most VPNs offer 3,000-5,000 servers. Coming in at nearly ten times that number of servers, PIA ensures there is a connection readily available no matter where you go.

PIA also includes adware and malware blockers to keep you safe online. When you visit a site that could compromise your data, this VPN won’t let you through, thus protecting your connection and personal information.

A screenshot of the Private Internet Access VPN dashboard showing multiple connection options

Source: Reviews.org

Pros

  • Heaps of servers
  • Anonymous payment options including gift cards
  • 10 connected devices at a time

Cons

  • No ability to choose servers
  • Known for so-so speeds
Private Internet Access VPN features
FeaturePrivate Internet Access
Price$11.95/mo.
$39.95/yr.
$79.00/3 yrs.
Servers33,000+
Countries78
Simultaneous connections10
Logs policyNo logs
Netflix supportUS Netflix only
Torrenting supportHit or miss
Ad blockerYes
EncryptionAES-128 default, but can select AES-256
VPN protocolWireGuard, OpenVPN
Customer support24/7 live chat and email
Free trialNone
Learn moreView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Private Internet Access standout features

  • Massive number of servers
  • Top-notch web privacy features
  • Accepts gift cards from Starbucks, Walmart, Best Buy, etc. as payment

Though its price recently jumped up to $12 a month, Private Internet Access lets you connect to one of over 33,000 servers. That’s an exceptional value—though we don’t like that you can’t manually select one of those thousands of servers.

Private Internet Access also has an unusual feature that lets you pay with a gift card from Walmart, Starbucks, Best Buy, and other locations. That means you don’t have to reveal your identity or share a credit card number.

We’re also happy with PIA’s no logs policy. Personal data collected is intended to maintain your user account and manage your payments. Your state or zip code may also be collected, but only to make sure PIA charges you the right amount of tax.

Netflix lovers may want to look elsewhere though, since PIA only works with the US Netflix library. And while Private Internet Access defaults to a fairly secure AES-128 encryption, we recommend bumping that up to AES-256 for maximum security.

View Plans | Read Full Private Internet Access VPN Review

Hotspot Shield: Best for Netflix

Hotspot Shield earned the title of Fastest VPN from Speedtest.net, making it great for streaming Netflix

Hotspot Shield features
VPN serviceLowest priceServers and countriesWorks with NetflixLearn more
The Hotspot Shield VPN logo of a blue shield with a multi-color circle in the center$2.99/mo. for 3 yrs. (billed $107.64 every 3 yrs.)3,200+
80+
Yes, paid plan onlyView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

While every VPN tends to cause some internet slowdowns, HotSpot Shield remains speedy. Even Speedtest.net took notice and named Hotspot Shield the fastest VPN in 2019.2

True to this claim to fame, Hotspot Shield maintained steady speeds when our Australia team put it to the test. They noted a download speed difference of less than 1% when connecting to an Australian server, and only a 3% download speed difference when connecting to a US server.

Those speeds make Hotspot Shield a no-brainer if you’re hoping to stream Netflix or do some gaming.

Heads Up icon
Sneak into Netflix at your own risk
If you plan to binge-watch another country’s Netflix library with help from a VPN, keep in mind that’s against the Netflix Terms of Service. (See section 4.6.) If you’re caught, your account might be terminated or restricted.
A screenshot of the Hotspot Shield VPN dashboard showing a US connection and recommended servers for streaming and gaming

Source: Reviews.org AU

Pros

  • Named fastest VPN by Speedtest.net
  • Ad-supported free plan
  • Free 1Password subscription

Cons

  • Personal data is collected
  • Free plan lacks 24/7 support
Hotspot Shield features
FeatureHotspot Shield
Price$12.99/mo.
$95.88/yr.
$107.64/3 yrs.
Servers3,200+
Countries80+
Simultaneous connections5
Logs policyCollects data on domains visited, device identities, IP address, etc.3
Netflix supportYes, paid plan only
Torrenting supportYes
Ad blockerNone
EncryptionAES-256
VPN protocolProprietary Hydra protocol
Customer supportFree: FAQ only
Paid: 24/7 live chat and email
Free trial7-day free trial
Learn moreView Plans

Data effective 8/26/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Hotspot Shield standout features

  • Fastest VPN speeds
  • Free password management through 1Password
  • Free basic version available

Hotspot Shield’s encryption is also well-known for being robust. Hotspot Shield claims its VPN blocks 57 million malware and phishing scam sites. (Those sites trick you into thinking you’re on a legit site, then proceed to steal your credit card info and other personal data.) That’s a big plus.

Another point in favor of Hotspot Shield: It created its own VPN protocol called Hydra. The Hotspot Shield team noticed that most VPN protocols suffer from high latency, so they optimized Hydra to reduce latency, or shorten the delay between the time you send data (for example, click a link) and the time your device receives data (the link you clicked on loads).

One important detail to note with Hotspot Shield is that its parent company, Aura, does collect your personal information. This goes against a no logs policy, and since Hotspot Shield is based in the US, it could also mean your data is shared with third parties.

View Plans | Read Full Hotspot Shield Review

Other VPN services to try

These VPNs also stood out, but not quite enough to make our top five. Still, each one has something to offer when it comes to protecting your online privacy.

Surfshark: Best for beginners

Surfshark sports a fun vibe with the interface and some technical features like the ability to choose which sites don’t use the VPN.

There’s a laundry list of extra features, like the Surfshark One ad blocker, split tunneling, kill switch, and private DNS on every server. And you can use as many devices as you want with Surfshark. Most VPN apps have a set limit of about 5 devices.

The biggest drawbacks with Surfshark are that it uses a static IP address, which is easier to track than the preferred dynamic IP. Plus, we’ve heard Windows users complain that Surfshark’s speeds are noticeably slow.

View Plans | Read Full Surfshark Review

IPVanish: Best for unlimited devices

IPVanish is a solid VPN app that may meet your needs, although it is a little light on features. You might like the price of $10 a month, though, which is a bit cheaper than most of the top VPN clients out there, such as ExpressVPN and NordVPN. And IPVanish comes with unlimited simultaneous devices

But if you’re hoping to watch Netflix, you’re limited to the US Netflix library.

View Plans | Read Full IPVanish Review

PureVPN: Best for BBC iPlayer

If you’re keen on British classics such as EastEnders or home reno dramas like Flat Out Fabulous, PureVPN is a great bet. We tested the BBC iPlayer with PureVPN and binge-watched Wallander (on the BBC) along with Young Wallander (on Netflix).

PureVPN servers call a mind-boggling 140+ countries home, which gives you a lot of options when it comes to tweaking your VPN connection. That and a fairly low monthly price of about $11 along with 10 simultaneous devices might also tickle your fancy.

Advanced VPN users might feel left out in the rain with PureVPN though. You’ll need to pay extra for a dedicated IP or port-forwarding. Granted, the cost is low ($1.75 for both features at the time we’re writing this), but we prefer a VPN that offers all features without holding out its hand for more money.

View Plans | Read Full PureVPN Review

TunnelBear: Best free ad blocker

TunnelBear is the quirky, fun VPN of the pack. Their website features a bear as a mascot and we kept finding jokes and puns about the product (like “the bear essentials”). The interface is remarkably clear, professional, and intuitive.

One super helpful feature is called GhostBear, which can trick websites into thinking you are not even using a VPN. This VPN includes a free ad blocker as well—and you can download it without even signing up for an account.

The kicker is that TunnelBear offers servers in only 41 countries, few of which are lenient toward P2P torrenting. On top of that, you won’t be able to access Netflix, only Hulu and YouTube.

View Plans | Read Full TunnelBear Review

ProtonVPN: Best for torrenting

If torrenting is your aim, we found that ProtonVPN is your best bet. (Though it has to be said that we don’t condone illegal downloads.)

This VPN offers four different plans: Free, Basic, Plus, and Visionary. The Plus plan offers the most VPN features, while the Visionary plan is the Plus plan combined with the ProtonMail encrypted email service. You’ll want the Basic or Plus plan for torrenting, and the Plus plan if you prefer to stream Netflix, Disney+, or other services.

The downside? ProtonVPN isn’t cheap unless you go with the (limited) Free plan. Its Basic and Plus plans cost $5 or $10 a month—and the Visionary plan costs a whopping $30 a month.

View Plans | Read Full ProtonVPN Review

Recap: The 10 best VPNs 2021

The best VPN out there right now is ExpressVPN. But there are a ton of other options to choose from if you’re looking for a specific VPN feature or have a unique need like location, video calls, gaming, or streaming.

  1. ExpressVPN: Best VPN for most people
  2. NordVPN: Best security
  3. CyberGhost: Best value
  4. Private Internet Access: Best web browsing features
  5. Hotspot Shield: Best for Netflix
  6. Surfshark: Best for beginners
  7. IPVanish: Best for unlimited devices
  8. PureVPN: Best for BBC iPlayer
  9. TunnelBear: Best free ad blocker
  10. ProtonVPN: Best for torrenting

We recommend using a VPN any time you’re online, but especially if you use public Wi-Fi at the airport, Starbucks, library, or elsewhere.

VPNs like ExpressVPN stand between you and the websites you visit so your data isn’t as vulnerable to leaks and theft. And if you’re at home, it’s a good idea to install your VPN service directly on your router so it protects your entire private network.

Methodology

We dove into hands-on testing of each VPN service we recommend here by streaming shows, downloading files, connecting to several servers in multiple countries, and noting any speed slowdowns. We also took a look at the following features:

  • Prices and how they compare to similar VPNs
  • Ease-of-use and user-friendliness in the interface
  • Guides and support documentation
  • Logs policies
  • Encryption and VPN protocol
  • Whether you can use the VPN to access Netflix or torrent files
  • Additional features, such as ad blockers, malware security, kill switches, etc.

In the end, we asked ourselves: “Is this a VPN worth recommending?” to be sure that each one of these top 10 VPN services has something to offer.

What is a VPN? Why do you need one

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are affordable, legal, and a great way to keep your internet activity (mostly) away from prying eyes.

Even if you don’t use the public Wi-Fi at Starbucks or the library, you’re probably already aware that almost everything you do online is tracked.

Yup, your internet service provider (ISP) or any company that makes money by marketing ads to you is probably logging everything you do online right now.4 And possibly hackers too.

We don’t mean to freak you out. But we want to stress that it’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy. Even if you’re not using public Wi-Fi.

The good news is, a virtual private network (VPN) is an easy—and often cheap—way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

It’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy, even if you’re not on public Wi-Fi. And having a VPN is an easy way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

What is a VPN?

In a nutshell, a VPN is software that builds an encrypted connection from your computer to a VPN server, and then to your ISP, which sends you to the website you want to visit. This is sometimes called the VPN tunnel, and it creates a secure connection to the website. Now prying eyes can’t watch what you do online—even if you’re shopping for creepy green vegetables that shout yodel-ay-ee-hoo!. (We assume it’s a white elephant gift, right?)

You can think of a VPN like a goalie protecting its turf—in this case, your computer and private data.

When another player tries to track your internet activity or gain access to your info, the VPN blocks it. The only ones who get to know what you’re doing online are the VPN and whatever website you’re visiting.

What is your IP address?

  • Your location:
  • Device type:
  • Operating system:
  • Internet service provider:
  • Device:
  • Browser:

Your IP address tells websites a lot of information about you. That includes your location, what kind of device you're browsing the internet on, and your internet provider.

A VPN can hide your IP address. But if you're not using a VPN to hide your IP address, you'll see all the information that's shared with websites in our widget here. If you're creeped out by this, you're not alone. We are too.

That's why we recommend using a VPN to keep your information safe online. We've tested dozens of VPN services to find the best and most affordable ones, and you can see which VPNs made our list by clicking the link below.

What is encryption?

Encryption protocols convert all your information into a secret code so that only the person (or computer) with the key to the code can read it.

VPN software can also mask your IP address to give you even more privacy online. Your IP address is assigned to you by your internet provider and is a unique series of numbers that attaches to everything you do online.

That means every online place you visit knows exactly where you’re located thanks to your IP address. But a VPN hides your personal IP address. Instead, the IP address of the VPN server you connect to is what shows up online.

What is a VPN server?

Servers are essentially storehouses of data—every website in existence is stored on a server (or servers), and VPN servers are no exception.

VPN servers are set up to host users and connect them to the internet, but they’re also configured to encrypt and decrypt the data you send and receive from websites online. (The data needs to be decrypted so your computer or mobile device can read it.)

Another way VPN servers are unique is that they’re often located in different US cities—or even different countries, like the UK, Sweden, or Germany. By hosting servers in different cities and countries, a VPN protects you from ads targeting certain geographical regions.

What’s more, if a VPN connection can make it look like you’re surfing the web from a flat in England, it’s also possible for you to get around region restrictions on certain websites or apps.

Why is the number of servers so important?

More VPN servers means more value. When there are thousands of servers, as you’ll find with apps like ExpressVPN and CyberGhost, you can almost always find a reliable and secure connection that’s also fast enough for the purposes at hand.

What VPNs can’t do

VPNs may seem like a miracle when it comes to securing your online privacy. But there are a few things they can’t do, such as fully prevent companies from tracking your information or speed up your internet.

Cookies can still track your information online

Even if you use a VPN, there are still ways for ad companies to track your path across the internet even after you’ve left their sites.

One example is cookies. You can think of cookies like a sort of digital ID card that you show to websites you visit online. That ID card includes information about you, like what pages on a website you visit, what’s in your shopping cart when you shop online, and any personal information you’ve volunteered, like your name.

With ad companies, the cookies you create can contain information about multiple sites you’ve visited if those sites all contain ads that are managed by one advertising company.

There is good news, though. Cookies don’t give these ad companies or websites access to your computer or any personal information you haven’t purposefully shared online. And cookies can’t infect your computer or device with viruses or malware.

Also, you can easily delete cookies whenever you want.

VPNs won’t make your internet faster

You should also know that a VPN can’t speed up your internet. Actually, a VPN will probably do the opposite and slow down your connection. That’s because you need to connect to both your ISP’s server and the VPN server to encrypt your online identity and traffic.

And if you choose a server that’s located far away from your current location, it takes more time for your internet connection to travel there and back.

It’s likely you won’t notice much of a change if you’re on DSL, cable, or fiber internet. But this is the main reason we don’t recommend using a VPN with satellite internet—because your internet connection already needs to travel thousands of miles above the Earth and back.

Info Box icon
Using a VPN with satellite internet isn’t recommended
Because a VPN requires your internet to connect to an extra server, it can cause a satellite internet connection to slow down even more.

This is because of latency, or the time it takes for your data to travel from your computer to the VPN server, then to the satellite, and on to the website you’re visiting. We’ve got more information on how latency works in our satellite internet guide.

VPNs still have to follow laws in the countries they’re based in

You should also know that a VPN still has to follow laws and restrictions imposed by the country it’s based in. That potentially includes subpoenas and warrants, which means a VPN may have to comply if asked to hand over your internet history.

Is a VPN legal?

Short answer: yes, a VPN is legal to use… but not everywhere. VPNs are legal in the US, Canada, and most other Western countries.

But there are some countries where VPNs are totally banned—mostly countries with super-restrictive governments like Iraq, China, and Russia.

It’s also important to know that, while a VPN is legal, it doesn’t make illegal acts okay. This includes illegal activity like downloading copyrighted information, such as songs or movies, cyberstalking, and hacking computers or networks.

Also, using a VPN to get around geo-restrictions, like streaming a TV show that’s not available in the US, is still likely a violation of the streaming app’s Terms of Service and could result in your account getting banned.

Where are VPNs banned?

The legality of your VPN depends on where you are at any given moment, not where you’re from. You can’t hop on your VPN during a vacation to Shanghai just because it’s legal in your home country.

Here’s a current list of countries where VPNs are illegal5:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • North Korea
  • Oman
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • United Arab Emirates

We also mentioned that VPN providers have to follow the laws of the countries they’re located in.

For example, if your VPN provider is located in a country where the government could legally make VPNs hand over information, then your VPN could potentially hand over your personal information to a foreign government.

Even if you personally don’t live in the same country as your VPN provider, your info could still be compromised.

FAQ

Still have questions about VPNs? We can help.

What is the best VPN?

What is the most secure VPN service?

The most secure VPN services right now are the following:

Each of these features AES-256 encryption, OpenVPN or WireGuard VPN protocol, and an independently audited no logs policy.

How much does a VPN service cost?

Most VPN services cost between $10 and $13 a month, but you can pay less each month if you subscribe for a longer amount of time. For example, NordVPN’s monthly cost drops from $12 a month to $3.67 a month if you choose a two-year subscription.

Which is better, NordVPN or ExpressVPN?

Both NordVPN and ExpressVPN are a solid choice, but we think ExpressVPN has a slight edge due to its speed, larger number of countries to choose a server in, and use of dynamic IP addresses.

Sources

  1. Sybil Andrea, NordVPN, “NordVPN Boosts Security With Colocated Servers,” October 2020. Accessed August 26, 2021.
  2. Speedtest, “Speedtest Awards: Fastest VPN” 2019. Accessed August 26, 2021.
  3. Aura, “Privacy Policy,” June 2021. Accessed August 26, 2021
  4. Eric Rescorla, dis://ed, “The USA Freedom Act and Browsing History,” May 2020. Accessed August 26, 2021
  5. Aimee O’Driscoll, Comparitech, “Where are VPNs Legal and Where are They Banned?,” May 2019. Accessed August 26, 2021

Additional contributors

John Brandon, Mindy Woodall, Chyelle Dvorak